1. The evolution of flowering plants has undoubtedly been influenced by a pollinator's ability to learn to associate floral signals with food. Here, we address the question of 'why' flowers produce scent by examining the ways in which olfactory learning by insect pollinators could influence how floral scent emission evolves in plant populations.
2. Being provided with a floral scent signal allows pollinators to learn to be specific in their foraging habits, which could, in turn, produce a selective advantage for plants if sexual reproduction is limited by the income of compatible gametes. Learning studies with honeybees predict that pollinator-mediated selection for floral scent production should favour signals which are distinctive and exhibit low variation within species because these signals are learned faster. Social bees quickly learn to associate scent with the presence of nectar, and their ability to do this is generally faster and more reliable than their ability to learn visual cues.
3. Pollinators rely on floral scent as a means of distinguishing honestly signalling flowers from deceptive ones. Furthermore, a pollinator's sensitivity to differences in nectar rewards can bias the way that it responds to floral scent. This mechanism may select for flowers that provide olfactory signals as an honest indicator of the presence of nectar or which select against the production of a detectable scent signal when no nectar is present.
4. We expect that an important yet commonly overlooked function of floral scent is an improvement in short-term pollinator specificity which provides an advantage to both pollinator and plant over the use of a visual signal alone. This, in turn, impacts the evolution of plant mating systems via its influence on the species-specific patterns of floral visitation by pollinators.